Ciné Files: Fear and Loathing in Lawndale

Movies Features

If there’s one thing the television show Daria is famous for, it’s the theme music—the opening section of the song “You’re Standing on My Neck” by the all-female alternative group (in the mid-90s sense of “alternative”) Splendora. That was about the extent of Splendora’s fame. Maybe it’s because they were one-hit wonders, or maybe because, like so many other bands who produce awesome theme songs, they were eclipsed by what they helped create.

This is my stop / got to get off / I may go pop
Excuse me, excuse me
I’ve got to be direct / If I’m wrong, please correct / You’re standing on my neck

I’ve been watching and thinking about Daria a lot lately. I recently reviewed the series on DVD for this fine establishment. And finally, after a marathon slog, I made it through all five seasons, culminating with Is it College Yet?, the second Daria movie and series finale. If my unabashed gushing wasn’t evidence enough, I’ll be clearer: Daria is probably my favorite TV show of all time. Maybe there’s something universal about Daria—almost everyone who came of age in the middle-class rural-suburbs of the mid-to-late 90s can relate to the show’s bizarre juxtaposition of material comfort and utter spiritual emptiness. Anyone who was the least bit self-aware and refused to buy into the American Cult of Self-Esteem was a deviant: as so many of Daria’s hapless characters put it, a “brain.”

Is it College Yet? was created in lieu of a truncated, six-episode sixth season of the show, and it’s pretty obvious. There’s a ton of resolution and character development crammed into the 75-minute runtime, and it works better as a farewell kiss to longtime series fans than a standalone movie, since it’s essentially three episodes strung together. But what a farewell kiss it is: Quinn grows up quickly after dealing with an alcoholic coworker, Ms. Barch springs wedding plans on Mr O’Neill, Daria and Jane trudge through the college admissions process, the Fashion Club disbands and Daria grapples with her wilting relationship with her boyfriend Tom.

It’s not so much that I enjoy being reminded of my high school years. Like the show’s titular heroine (and maybe like you, I’m willing to bet), high school was a time of my life that I’m very content to forget, or at least do as little thinking about as possible. I was awkward, unmotivated, surly and sarcastic—a miserable and alienated teenager who wouldn’t have been out of place with the rest of the Lawndale crew. And so, Is It College Yet? forced me to think about high school for the first time in quite a while. Sure, it’s great for me that I have Daria as an ex-post-facto justification for my adolescent cynicism and burning desire to escape my hometown, but that doesn’t make me any happier. And it doesn’t erase the sneaking suspicion that I totally wasted my time in high school.

But I don’t think ignorance is bliss, either. Would I have been happier if I hadn’t been cognizant of the ridiculous farce that is the “artificial society” (as Daria put it) of high school? If I had been less critical of popularity contests, ostentatious displays of status and the generally horrible way teenagers treat each other? Which is to say nothing of the fact that our schools are more and more becoming institutions that train students to be obedient problem-solvers, rather than critical thinkers.

Daria flew in the face of the American Dream. In a decade possessed by irrational exuberance and convictions of our own exceptionalism, it was a show that dared to ask if that’s what we really wanted, if it was making us happy. And for so many people who grew up in that era, Daria was one of the few sane voices reminding us that it really is OK to be different. (There’s palpable irony to it being MTV’s flagship show at the time, especially when that station is becoming increasingly devoted to cultural homogeneity and sameness of opinion.)

So in the end, Daria left me with more questions than answers, and more unfinished thoughts than satisfying, neatly-wrapped conclusions. “Here’s your weird, all-encompassing consumer culture,” the show seems to be saying. “And here’s how you’ll feel when you actually think about it.” Which is exactly why it’s such a spectacular TV series. That and the Splendora song, of course.

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